The Fresh Loaf

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Water on top

Amorgan's picture

Water on top

Hi everyone!

I had started a starter a few months ago but that just didn't work so I threw it out. Now, with a heatwave going on, I thought I'd try again because the temperatures in my house are a lot more favourable. 

The first 2 days were great, I didn't touch it and it looked frothy and bubbly and everything I imagined it should look like. But then I started feeding, taking a few spoonfuls and adding flour and water etc, every day. I've fed a little bit of flour in the evenings as well. I'm on day 5 now.

But from day 3 on every time a layer of clear water accumulates on top. This happens even a few hours after feeding and if I tip it out and give it a stir a new layer will just form after a few hours. The whole starter looks nothing like it did in those first two days, there's no frothiness and no rising. There's plenty of bubbles on top but I can't really see them on the sides anymore. 

I'm very inexperienced and so I think I must've read a thousand articles and seen countless youtube tutorials but none of those ever look like what I've got going on here. 

I hope one of you has some advice. I was really hoping it would work this time.

Thank you!

Levaineer's picture

Sounds like hooch. This is a normal development when building a starter. Just mix it in and keep feeding regularly. As the starter matures this phenomenon will go away. 

phaz's picture

Thicken it up a little, stir it up a lot and often. Don't add anything until you see activity again. So far everything appears normal for a water and flour starter. 

clazar123's picture

The starter looks very thin/watery. 1. How much flour and how much water are you using?  2. What is the consistency like? Crepe batter? Pancake batter? 3. What kind of AP flour are you using? Bleached/unbleached? 4.  Are you saying on Day 1-2-3-4-5 after the first mix you are discarding ("taking a few spoonfuls" ) and feeding and "it is bubbling" on Day 3?

I know there are a million articles/youtubes,etc on how to make a starter. Much of the information is contradictory and makes no sense. So take a deep breath and first understand the CONCEPT of what you are trying to accomplish. Use analogies comparing to what you are more familiar with. It is not mysterious-it is completely understandable in your experience.

Let's use a bird feeder analogy.When you put a bird feeder out, there are not many birds visiting initially because they don't know about it. As 3 days go by, there are more and more birds visiting. Now lets pretend that these birds enter a  cage to feed and cannot leave. The birds have food and are happy so they sing. If we remove all but 1 of the birds every day, there is much less singing going on and we never get the full chorus of song we could have if we had let their population grow. On the other hand,if  the population is allowed to accumulate and the cage never cleaned we run into another dilemma! The food supply dwindles, they may become silent, filth accumulates and eventually they die as the food runs out or gets too low to supply more than a few.

Now lets change a few words

When you start a startert, there are not many yeasts present initially because there is a limited number present in the flour. As 3 days go by, there are more and more yeasts cells developing as well as lactic acid bacilli (LAB) that often travel with yeast cells. Now lets pretend that these microorganisms enter a  cage to feed and cannot leave. The  have food and are happy so they do what they do best-LAB produce lactic acid which makes it a more friendly environment for themselves and yeast and the yeast starts reproducing and creating gas .LAB starts the party but eventually the yeast outnumber (this is the desired outcome) If we remove all but a small amount of the microorganisms the first few days, the yeast and LAB population is constantly being decimated. They will not be producing many gas bubbles. On the other hand,if  the population is allowed to accumulate and not fed enough and the starter never discarded when the population of yeast is high, (equivalent to "cage never cleaned") we run into another dilemma! The food supply dwindles, they go dormant,  filth accumulates and eventually they die as the food runs out or gets too low to supply more than a few.

So the lesson is-first you have to build the population by providing food and water (unbleached AP flour and clean, unchlorinated water-start with just 2 TBSP of flour),  a conducive environment (temp between 70-85F-sweet spot 82F), and time. Stir several times a day so each yeast spore is moved to new food (they don't swim to new food-they eat what i next to them). Wait until some bubbling is seen before feeding (not discarding because you are throwing a lot of your population away.) After a few days, you should see the level rising and falling after a feed IF THE STARTER IS THICK ENOUGH. I keep mine at a thick pancake batter-it still pours off the mixing spoon but slowly. THAT is when you start discarding half,stirring several ties a day and watching. If liquid develops after the rise and fall, that is hootch and a product of starvation-discard and feed the starter twice a day at that point.

Remember I said LAB starts producing first? LAB also produces bubbles and LOTS of them before the yeasts have really developed. So initially you will see furious,fast rises and falls and maybe even some yucky odor as the culture acidifies and the other odor-producing bacteria present die off. Keep discarding/feeding at that point. It may last a few hours or a few days. Eventually, the rises become a little more consistent and sedate. That is when the yeast population is dominant and the starter can be used. That may be anywhere from Day 5-20.! Eventually, the yeast and LAB that remain will balance and become symbiotic. It takes a while for that.

Feeding schedules? Wow there are many. Find what works for you and your culture and go with it. Remember, you now have a pet that needs a clean cage, a good environmental temp,  good friends and a steady supply of food. Treat it right and it will thrive. Occasionally, like any living thing, it can become sick or die.

Have fun and bake some deliciousness!


Amorgan's picture

Wow, thanks a lot for this detailed reply!

To answer your questions: I started with 120g flour and 120g water. With the discarding process I kept 3 spoons of the starter and added another 120g of both water and flour (because that's the tutorial I was following). Then in the evenings I was feeding it 20g of water and flour. 

The flour is use is a 50/50 mix of unbleached all purpose and whole wheat flour. 

And yeah, after the first mix I left it for 2 days and it looked great, then on day 3 I started discarding and feeding and there were still some bubbles but also water was accumulating. Now on day 5 there's no a lot of bubbles left. I've thickened it up a bit and there doesn't seem to be as much water accumulating now. 

I have to be honest, I'm not great at doing things without a detailed plan and so figuring out something like this on my own seems a bit daunting. But then I supposed no two cultures are the same and following someone else's schedule/recipe is never going to be 100% right. 

I will persist with it and pray to the sourdough gods that it'll turn out alright! 

Thank you so much.